This Date in UCSF History: Music is Good Medicine

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Originally published December 12, 2011. In many hospital rooms, the steady beeping of a cardiac monitor is the most soothing sound a patient hears. Jessica Tillman, a volunteer with UCSFs Music is Good Medicine program, overlays that beat with melodies sung a cappella at patients’ bedsides.

For one hour every week, Jessica, who has a degree in music education and vocal performance, visits inpatient rooms at UCSFs Parnassus campus hospitals where she performs one or two songs for patients and their families.

She recalls her first visit as a volunteer, to a patient whom the nurse had initially written off as unresponsive, saying he might not know she was in the room. But as she began singing, the monitors indicated otherwise: ‘To see his blood pressure go down and his breathing calm was very emotional — I’ve never had such a powerful experience with music.”

Quite a statement, considering she has performed for audiences of hundreds.

Tillman is one of many talented volunteers who spend an hour or two per week visiting patients’ rooms and sharing the gift of music through the Music is Good Medicine program, an initiative of UCSF Medical Center Spiritual Care Services.

The program is coordinated by Chaplain Pegi Walker, who is inspired and touched by the services provided by volunteers every day. Walker says that classical tunes and spirituals like Amazing Grace are usually the most requested, but the program’s multi-talented volunteers are full of surprises.

Ben Kramarz, a guitarist and vocalist, even plays Metallica riffs, and once fulfilled a request made by a patient in his 20s for a song by Alice in Chains; the young man’s immediate response was unforgettable.

“Man, you just totally made my day!” Chaplain Walker says that other artists include a Celtic fiddler and a Latina vocalist, both of whom are able to connect with patients on a cultural level and “take them to the home within.”

Most of the program’s volunteers are from the greater San Francisco community, but some are UCSF faculty, staff, and students, who see the program as an opportunity to interact with patients in a different way — to relate with them on a deeper level through music. Tillman, for example, is an executive assistant in the Department of Neurology.

She is also taking prerequisites courses for nursing school and hopes to be a nursing student here at UCSF one day. Despite her busy schedule, she finds time to volunteer with Music is Good Medicine because it also offers an outlet for her to share her musical passion, and to help others who are in need of an uplifting song.

The Music is Good Medicine program is certainly on to something, as physicians worldwide are beginning to incorporate music into treatment plans and to study its impact on patient recovery.

We all know that hearing a favorite dance tune can pump us up for a long run or a big exam, and we enjoy the way a soothing melody helps us unwind from a stressful day, but researchers are beginning to further investigate how our neurological response to music can facilitate healing.

A study out of the University of Munich showed that patients required lower doses of sedative drugs after listening to one hour of Mozart piano sonatas.

These patients also demonstrated an ease in both blood pressure and heart rate, and showed a 50 percent increase in their levels of pituitary growth hormone, which is associated with healing. Furthermore, the Music is Good Medicine program brings the performers to the bedside, adding a personal touch that can’t be reproduced through the sounds of a speaker.

Chaplain Walker says that the volunteers always benefit as much as the patients - the profound patient responses “all feel like a thank you.”

Music is Good Medicine has been a part of Spiritual Care Services since 2006.